Yet again an embattled Theresa May has survived to fight another day as Britain’s Prime Minister, seeing off on Wednesday a motion of no confidence in her government tabled by the country’s main opposition Labor party.
It was a foregone conclusion that she would — Conservative lawmakers and their allies in the small Northern Irish party that sustains May’s minority government were never going to vote with the opposition parties, political commentators argued beforehand. Bringing down May’s government would have inevitably triggered a general election — one Conservatives couldn’t be sure of winning.
In more normal times, though, May would have resigned before Wednesday’s no-confidence debate on her government.
The day before she endured the biggest parliamentary reversal ever handed a prime minister in British history with 432 lawmakers — including a third of her own ruling Conservative party — refusing to endorse her highly contentious Brexit deal, her bid to square the circle between those wanting a total break with the EU and those wanting Britain to remain a member of the bloc or at least closely aligned to it.
Tuesday’s parliamentary vote has pushed Britain deeper into a political labyrinth that no one seems to know how to navigate, least of all May, who doesn’t have a track record of bi-partisanship. Only 202 lawmakers backed her draft plan, itself the result of two-years of ill-tempered haggling with European Union leaders.
She had been warned for months the deal would not get a House of Commons seal of approval, but she insisted on bringing it up for a vote in her bid to bend an unenthusiastic parliament to her will. Convinced, her critics said, that her brinkmanship would be rewarded.
The previous ignominious record-holder for parliamentary rebuffs was Ramsay MacDonald, a Labor prime minister who lost a vote by 166 in 1924. He bowed to convention and resigned, triggering a general election, which he then lost.
But these are anything but normal times in Britain and May offered no regrets nor hint she had considered resigning.
Brexit has rancorously divided the country down the middle and fractured political parties into quarrelsome unyielding factions. It also has upended a political rulebook better suited for more stable times. Long-established procedures and conventions are increasingly being cast aside as Theresa May, cabinet ministers and lawmakers, both Brexiters and those who want to remain in the EU, battle desperately how to part company with the bloc.
Last week, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the flamboyant John Bercow, accepted, to the fury of government supporters, a parliamentary maneuver by pro-EU Conservative rebels and Labor backers that centuries of precedence dictated he should not. “If we were guided only by precedent, nothing would ever change,” he sniffed.
Bercow, an ardent anti-Brexiter, was accused of trying to scupper Britain’s exit from the EU, set for March 29, but his position was that he was trying to giving parliament a greater say over what should be done, allowing it to try to plot a way out of the political deadlock that Brexit has become.
In the high political drama that’s playing out with just 71 days left before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU — with or without an approved deal with Brussels — one key question is what is driving Theresa May?
Aside from Tuesday’s crushing defeat, her tenure at Downing Street has witnessed a series of startling setbacks that would have prompted other prime ministers to quit.
She gambled in 2017 by calling a snap election, hoping to secure a larger majority for the Conservatives only to see Labor dash her hopes, leaving her heading a precariously positioned minority government. She has drawn emphatic ‘red lines’ with EU negotiators only to be forced to cave when confronted with firm resistance from Brussels or outrage from hardline Brexiters or Europhiles in her own party.
Three Brexit ministers and eleven other members of her government have resigned over policy differences. That’s another record for a prime minister. And she has lost half-dozen crucial Brexit-related votes in as many weeks. Her cabinet is hopelessly split. Brexit has consumed so much of the government’s energy that it has mismanaged a series of other challenges, including the aftermath of the 2017 fire that consumed the Grenfell Tower residential block in London.
Why does she persist as prime minister, deciding even to forgo the chance to get out after the historic defeat on Tuesday? She certainly has stamina, despite battling Diabetes 1. Grant Shapps, a former Conservative Party chairman, who once tried to organize a coup against her, recently noted how she thrives on danger and can operate when “it’s fairly high on the scale.” He added: “she operates at the upper end of that scale almost every day of her life and, remarkably, walks out at the other end.”
But the last few weeks of Brexit turmoil, with May enduring a merry-go-round of rebuffs and plots, has begun to tell on the British leader. One commentator likened her recent appearances in the Commons to that of a martyr. “She looked stony, eyelids lowered like the statue of some early Christian martyr,” wrote novelist Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph. “Her enemies may have unleashed their arrows into her, but St Theresa forges on, bloodied but unbowed,” she added.
Although not meant kindly, Pearson’s observation does provide one clue to what makes May tick, agree aides. Like Germany’s equally dogged leader Angela Merkel, May is the daughter of a clergyman, and she remains a devout church-goer. May has said that her Christian faith “is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things.”
She has spoken glowingly of her father’s devotion and dutifulness to parishioners. One of her favorite hymns is on the subject of Crucifixion, Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” a canticle that embraces sacrifice and duty and rejects pride.
Even her political foes, some half-heartedly, praise her conscientiousness. “The bit I most admire about Theresa May is her determination to do her duty as she perceives it and that does not include running away,” said rebel Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch-Brexiter.
After the 2017 election setback, May did contemplate resignation, say aides. But her sense of duty again kicked in. She told Conservative lawmakers she accepted responsibility for the setback, adding, “I’m the one who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it.”
Others worry, however, that her conscientiousness can too often slide into single-minded obduracy — a pride-based character flaw that blinds her to circumstances and leads her — they say, to insist her way is the only right way.
In 2016, Ken Clarke, a veteran politician, who served in five cabinet roles including home secretary and chancellor, was caught in an unguarded moment in a television studio complaining to a fellow Conservative about how May is a “bloody difficult woman.” He added: “She is too narrow.”
Obduracy in some circumstances can be an essential quality for a leader — think Winston Churchill in 1940, who rejected naysayers in his war cabinet pleading with him to sue for negotiations with Nazi Germany. But in the current divided circumstances of the country, pertinacity, critics of May say, isn’t enough on its own. In Britain, May’s robotic statements have earned her the nickname “Maybot.”
“Her authority has gone, yet she still thinks she is the only person who can find a way out of a mess that she has created herself,” complained journalist Philip Johnston in a recently commentary. “True, she inherited a set of difficult circumstances, but at almost every turn she had made a wrong call,” he added.
Among those wrong calls, say critics, is failing to reach out across party lines to try to shape a Brexit deal that can attract a parliamentary majority. Former ministers from the Cabinets of Margaret Thatcher, Ken Clarke and Chris Patten, have urged her to rethink and put Britain’s exit from the bloc on hold in order for a consensus to be hammered out.
Others say she is as much trapped on the Brexit merry-go-round as the country.
“Some of the mess we are in is of May’s own making. But she is also trapped in it. She isn’t someone who turns tail. But she can’t walk away even if she wanted to. She saw off a party mutiny in December only because none of her possible replacements wanted to end up holding the poisoned chalice of Brexit,” said an aide.